What makes a woman a Feminist? Some things that shape our identity are universal: from our parents we inherit our biological make-up, our language and a spate of social and personal mannerisms. But change is instigated by those who break away from the frictionless familial, societal and cultural mould and forge a new path for themselves, undaunted by uncertainty. I cannot claim to have taken this kind of solo leap into the unknown: a century of empowered women have fought policy and prejudice to allow me – us – the opportunities that are now my rights. Moreover, the lives of my foremothers are emblazoned with tenacity, independence and self-belief in times before these values were so ardently indoctrinated for women.
With this in mind, when my maternal grandmother recently asked for help in recording memoirs of early life on a Dictaphone, I took the opportunity to enact my own information-gathering agenda. I prepared some questions with which to gently nudge her through cloudy memories and meandering stories of formative years (allowing maximal flexibility for the elderly person tangent factor).
My grandmother grew up in small town New South Wales, the second of nine children. I’m told that they “lived off the smell of an oily rag,” but not by Nan, to whom this seems to be an extraneous detail. Her father was a ‘service car’ (taxi) driver whose strict, Methodist parents had rejected him on account of his choice of wife: when he chose to marry a woman whose unapologetic delight in dancing would surely drag him to hell with her, they wrote him out of their wills and wiped their hands clean of him.
His defiant resolution to marry for love rather than socio-economic or religious propriety marked, I believe, the inception of a culture of respect for women that would expand the possibilities in life for his wife, his daughters, his granddaughters and their daughters after them. Ken Wein set a precedent: rules imposed by, and opinions of, institutions – be they religious or cultural, or people, be they politicians or your parents – should not overshadow or eclipse one’s own educated judgement of character and personal code of ethics. Ergo, just because others alleged that women should be a certain way, did not mean you should believe or endorse it. Love and personal freedom are our rights and universal, primal needs, and by holding them to be more important than social and cultural regulations, Nan’s parents modelled liberal ethics that recognised and promoted equality, respect and acceptance.
Indeed, they were unfazed by Nan’s unusual tom-boyish behaviour. At age 5, her hair entwined in curling rags per her adoring, unsuspecting aunt’s tradition, she had her brother hack it off with craft scissors and ran excitedly to inform her parents of the change: “LOOK! YOU’VE GOT TWO BOYS NOW!” Nan and her hackjob bob clung to her father’s and brothers’ company more often than her mother’s and sisters’, playing with sticks and stones outside rather than babies and bonnets inside. Nanny’s parents were supportive and gentle, never smacking with a disciplinary hand, and their preoccupation with maintaining the familial home meant she quickly developed intellectual autonomy and maturity far beyond her years. By the time she was 12, Nan was the acting Eldest Child for 7 younger siblings, a role that she took very seriously. She coordinated the Sunday Schooling of her siblings which they did by correspondence, leading them to the Homework Tree and supervising their completion of all coursework satisfactorily. Nan was bright: her performance at school earned her a scholarship to local government school otherwise beyond the reach of her parents’ income.
She continued to excel in her studies as well as extra-curricular activities – she was a writer for and co-editor of the school’s magazine along with her best friend, a role that she would have pursued as a career in an ideal world.
Unfortunately, the world is not ideal, and university was not free. Nursing was within the familial budget, and unlike Journalism or Teaching, both scholarship and board were provided. Nan became a nurse at age 20 and got a job at Beaudesert Hospital where, a few years later, she met her future husband, Bernie. They married at age 24 and had their first of four kids shortly thereafter, and just like that, aged younger than I am now (having barely started my career), Nan’s career was over: by law, women could not return to work as public servants after having children. While the post-war government had employed married women to alleviate the shortage of labour, the marriage bar remained until 1966, as did widespread unease over the ‘proper’ role of women. Still, she was happy – this was the norm, and she loved her husband and children – but what happened to all that promise, all that pent up intellect and strength and drive?
Fate was kind to have given her two daughters who grew to match Nan’s indefatigable industriousness and incredible self-discipline. Studies have shown that communities with strong female leaders and daughters of working mothers have higher aspirations, complete more years of education, are more likely to be employed in management roles and earn higher incomes. Like many daughters of 1950s women, mum and her sister were raised with the knowledge that they could do anything they put their mind to – a climate of infinite possibilities and therefore, extremely high expectations.
It’s possible that my mother’s upbringing in this environment is responsible for a range of neuroses: a catastrophic, nuclear explosion probably still couldn’t stop mum from getting up at 5, going for a run, working a 12 hour day, doing a few selfless favours and coordinating the affairs of her parents and (adult) children. But it’s also the reason that she and her sister are both in high level management positions, my mother at a girls’ high school, being a strong female role model for not only her own two daughters but hundreds of other young girls at the precipice of their own independent, adult lives and potential careers. It’s the reason she chose to return to work after having my siblings and I, and that she was unfazed and resolute in doing so despite her (purest of heart and intention) mother-in-law’s repeatedly outspoken disapproval. It’s the reason she tactfully calls out everyday sexism with flawless argumentative intellect and points a finger at the remnants of patriarchy in our culture with an educated, analytical mind. Ultimately, it’s also the reason that I now do as well.
Through this retrospective of my maternal ancestry, one thing has become clear. I learned to demand respect and fight for equality down to the last socio-cultural stigma from Mum, and Mum would not be a model of feminist values if it weren’t for Nan: an obvious testament to the importance of strong female role models in the empowerment of women. But Nan would not have believed herself deserving of equal respect, rights and opportunities if it weren’t for her father, whose choices in life were manifestations of his own belief in equality, tolerance and liberal ethics. And to me, this is a powerful illustration of the fact that equality is a paradigm upheld by both male and female role models, never more powerfully than in collaboration.